It is well established in law that contracts contain both implied and express terms. In Williams v Leeds United Football Club, the High Court held that it was a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence to forward a pornographic e-mail to a junior colleague even though the breach occurred more than five years before the employee was dismissed.
Mr Williams started working as the Technical Director at Leeds United in August 2006. Under his contract, he was entitled to an annual salary of £200,000 and to receive 12 months’ notice in the event of termination of his contract, unless he was found guilty of gross misconduct.
On 23 July 2013, the club gave written notice of the termination of Mr Williams’ employment by reason of redundancy. Prior to the notice of dismissal, it started investigating a number of senior managers, including Mr Williams, for evidence to justify dismissal on grounds of gross misconduct. As part of that investigation, it found that Mr Williams had forwarded an obscene and pornographic e-mail to a junior female employee at Leeds United and two male friends employed at other clubs in 2008.
After inviting Mr Williams to a disciplinary hearing, the club dismissed him summarily without notice on the ground of gross misconduct. He brought a claim in the High Court for wrongful dismissal and compensation for the balance of the salary and contractual benefits that would have been paid during the 12-month notice period if the contract had not been terminated on 30 July 2013.
High Court decision
The High Court judge held that by virtue of sending a pornographic e-mail to a much more junior colleague, Mr Williams had committed a breach of the term of trust and confidence implied in his contract. His actions had left the club vulnerable to a claim for sexual harassment and could have adversely affected its reputation if the media had got hold of the e-mails.
Although Mr Williams had not been given a copy of the club’s internet policy which banned lewd or pornographic pictures, the judge held that it should have been obvious to someone in such a senior management position that it was not appropriate to forward these images to a junior member of staff.
The fact that the club committed an anticipatory breach of contract on 22 July when it decided not to pay Mr Williams any further salary did not mean it could not dismiss him summarily when it discovered what he had done. Nor was the club prevented from relying on misconduct discovered after the dismissal in order to justify it or because it was motivated by its own financial interests.
On that basis, the court dismissed both his claims.